Elaine Showalter Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elaine Showalter 1941-

American critic, nonfiction writer, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Showalter's career through 2003.

One of America's foremost academic literary scholars, Showalter is renowned for her pioneering feminist studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century female authors and her provocative cultural analysis of women's oppression in the history of psychiatry. In her influential book A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), Showalter advanced a new form of feminist literary theory under the term “gynocriticism,” offering an alternative framework for the interpretation of women's literary history. Likewise, in works such as The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985) and Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1997), Showalter forged the branch of feminist criticism known as “hystory,” an attempt to reinterpret and redefine the pejorative notion of women's hysteria as embodied in literary and social history. Showalter's contributions to feminist criticism and women's studies have helped influence the canon of British and American literature, bringing new visibility and legitimacy to often forgotten or under-appreciated female authors.

Biographical Information

Showalter was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1941 to parents Paul Cottler and Violet Rottenberg Cottler. Though he never finished grammar school, Showalter's immigrant father was a successful wool merchant. Showalter's mother completed high school but remained at home in the role of housewife. Showalter chose to attend Bryn Mawr College against the wishes of her parents who both disapproved of their daughter's intellectual leanings and educational ambitions. Nonetheless, Showalter completed her bachelor's degree in English at Bryn Mawr in 1962 and subsequently pursued graduate studies in English at Brandeis University. Her parents also objected to her engagement to English Showalter, a French scholar, who was not Jewish. When Showalter began her graduate work at Brandeis, her parents stopped supporting her financially, and after she married Showalter in 1963, they disowned her. Showalter completed her master's degree in English at Brandeis in 1964 and embarked upon her doctoral studies at the University of California at Davis, where her husband had taken a teaching appointment in the French department. In 1970, after starting a family and moving to Princeton University, where her husband had accepted a faculty position, Showalter received her doctorate in English from UC Davis and was hired as an assistant professor at Douglass College of Rutgers University in New Jersey. In the late 1960s, she became active in the new women's movement and served as president of the Princeton chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1969. Her involvement in NOW brought her into contact with other emerging feminist leaders, most notably feminist literary scholar Kate Millett and feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. During this early period of activism, Showalter edited Women's Liberation and Literature (1971) and published A Literature of Their Own, her first major work of literary scholarship. While at Douglass, she moved from assistant professor to associate professor in 1974, and became a full professor of English in 1983. She also served as a visiting professor of English and women's studies at the University of Delaware between 1976 and 1977. During this period, she received several important fellowships, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977 and a Rockefeller humanities fellowship in 1981. In 1984 Showalter left Douglass for Princeton University, where she accepted a position as a professor of English and was later named the Avalon Professor of Humanities. She has worked as an editor for several feminist scholarly journals and publishers, including Women's Studies, Signs, the Feminist Press, and Virago Press. A member of the Modern...

(The entire section is 1,820 words.)